The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

On food security, art and snowboarding...

On food security, art and snowboarding...


Richard F. Ragan is the World Food Programme (WFP) Country Representative for Nepal. The charming 45-year old “almost professional” snowboarder is an adventurist at heart and claims his love for this country. Be it his attempt to come to Nepal as a Peace Corp volunteer in the late 80s (and sent to Philipines instead) or his recent snowboard escapade in Annapurna area when he nearly got “fried” by the avalanche, you can see the spark in his eyes when he talks about his stories of Nepal. The father of three kids is also possibly the only American to be a UN diplomat based in North Korea.

The Week editor Subel Bhandari and correspondent Ujjwala Maharjan talked to Ragan about Nepal, the food situation in the country, to his art and music interests. Excerpts:

What actually happened regarding the Jajarkot incident? A human-right NGO accused the WFP of providing bad food that caused the cholera outbreak earlier this year in which more than 200 people died.

I think it is important for any human-right organization to be concerned with the food security. That’s a good thing. Not enough people have paid attention to the problems that people in the remote parts of the country face. As I have said publicly earlier, it is medically and scientifically impossible for food to have caused any diarrhea epidemic. Maybe it is a misunderstanding between the organization and us.

All I can do is read quotes and see what was said in media and I don’t want to play blame games. The fact remains dry food rations cannot cause diarrhea related illnesses that would result in death. I don’t think it is useful to debate on whether food had a role to play in the incident in far west. The focus should have been on what needs to happen so that this does not occur next year because reality is every year in Nepal there are hundreds of diarrhea related deaths which are fundamentally a result of people drinking contaminated water and practicing poor hygiene. We have to figure out how to approach that and not look around and blame people.

At the moment, what are your operations?

We’re feeding over two million people all over the country and it’s quite a big operation that has grown from a US$25 million program to US$115 million a year. We are the largest airlift operation of WFP in the world. The challenges behind growing that fast and being that big are certainly there. We have been able to reach the remotest parts of the country.

We are using food as entry point to tackle questions around short and medium term food security and also use food like money to pay community to do development projects.

WFP has the Bhutanese refugee program where we feed over 90,000 refugees as many have been resettled already. We also feed over a quarter million kids, and have programs where we give away food as an incentive to parents for sending their children to school. We also do a mother and child health care programs primarily with government partners.

The quality of food that WFP provides has been questioned time and again by Nepali media. Do you think the media is being prejudiced?

We’re feeding over two million people in the country and it is never perfect. We have one of the most rigid systems to look at the quality of our food. When you are feeding this many people, you run into issues that you’ve got to deal with. The question is if we have an effective mechanism in place to monitor the food in all different stages as it moves. We check it when it is bought and it is checked when it is brought into the country by the government in the customs. We check it again as we get it and also our partners check it once they receive it. If there is any problem, we replace it. There is always going to be questions around food quality and we take it seriously. We spend close to a million dollars per year just to check food quality.

Do you also get food from local market?

Of our program, 85 per cent comes from the region, that is Nepal and India. Of that, 12 to 15 per cent, depending on the year and its harvest, is from Nepal suppliers. Rest is coming from suppliers who are buying either in India or directly from Indian suppliers. The government has now asked us not to buy food in Nepal because there is a deficit of production this year. They don’t want us to go into the market and take away food from the consumers. So we are primarily buying in India.

In the United Nations, WFP is the only agency that has to raise its funds by itself. How do you do that?

We do it through our projects where we present a concept to our board in Rome, Italy. The board approves it and we work with government on the concept and we go out and raise money for it. Governments generally give us money based on what they perceive to be the need in the country and the merits of our projects.

In a talk program few months ago, you portrayed a bleak image of food security in Nepal. Is it that bad?

Nepal has some of the worst chronic malnutrition rate. There are two types of malnutrition: acute malnutrition is weight to height and chronic malnutrition, the most pervasive, attacks children in the developmental stages from age zero to five. If you don’t get the right nutrition during that period, your mental and physical facilities is underdeveloped. In mid and far western region, you have chronic malnutrition rate as high as 68 to 70 percent. There is a combination of factors for it, one there is not enough food and the other is that there is no right kind of food to these children.

How about the food production that has gone down?

You have a growing population and the food production is not meeting up your population growth demand. You also had successive years of winter and summer droughts. I do not have the scientific data to say that change in weather patterns are result of climate change but anecdotally we can see that there is a lot less snow in higher mountains which means a lot less snow melt that is the source of water for irrigation for farmers during their winter crop. I am a mountain climber and I can see changing patterns in snowline. I came here in 1989 I climbed Mt Imja Tse and Khumbu and there was no lake at the bottom of Imja glacier and in 20 years, you got a new lake at the bottom of the biggest glacier coming out of Lhotse. Three very critical places on earth to look at climate change are the two poles and here in the Himalayas. Nepal has always been a disaster prone area, with floods and landslides every year. Now they seem to be growing in regularity and scale.

You said WFP program funds raised from US$ 25 million to US$ 155 million. Is it because Nepal is going down the dire road so fast?

There was always an emergency here but for whatever reasons people chose to ignore it. Maybe because it was too difficult or too expensive and these people were in unreachable places. We now have over 30 people who live out in the districts who have satellite phones and devices, who are food security surveillance monitors. They look at problems everyday, walk from village to village and we get real time information from them on what is actually happening and the dynamics of how VDCs in remote areas are dealing with things. Before, we had no idea what was happening and it was easy to say there was conflict and ignore it, but that is not sustainable. New Nepal cannot afford to ignore these populations. I don’t think it is sustainable to do large scale airlift aid operation into these places forever because it would cost too much. But we have to use the opportunities to gain with food, an entry point, which invest in activities that invest in food security. We also grew because Nepal is today in a unique position where the attention of the world is focused on it with the peace process, donors want the country to emerge from the process successfully and return to the state of peace, normalcy and self-sustainability. So they are investing in the country and as a result of that we are able to raise money.

One of our biggest donors last year was the Government of Nepal. They were confident in our programs and they wanted us to implement programs because we had the ability to move quickly and execute them when they needed to address some immediate food security issues.

What do you see as the main challenge of working towards the food crisis?

There is no main challenge. But there are three main areas we should focus on. We need a short term, medium and a long term response. Short term is trying to stabilize immediate food security targeting the households which are food insecure right now and provide the stock gap till they make it to the next agricultural cycle. The medium term is the mixture of providing food but also giving them developmental activities that promote food security like food for work program where we are building irrigation systems, access roads and farmer’s cooperatives to increase production, sustainability and increase community’s resilience to deal with fluctuation and future shocks. The third is the longer term agricultural production that has to happen in the country that requires proper structural investments, like the Jumla road and Karnali highway. Most of the rural parts have rain fed agricultural systems. Investment in irrigation is necessary. You have to develop a domestic seed stock production capability which gives farmers access to high yielding seed stocks on an annual basis. It is incredibly important for the government to have policy making mechanism because food security is a multi-Ministry issue. Like Yubaraj Khatiwada , the National Planning Commission Vice Chairman says -- Nepal needs to be a “food sovereign” state which means it needs to produce enough food on its own and be independent of external market. The conventional wisdom was you had to have strong economy so you could buy food in the global market.

What do you think of Nepal being a Wai Wai nation? It has become a national lunch, even in the furthest corner of our country.

I just read a very important book called the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” which looks at culture of eating in America. And I say Nepal is also moving in that direction but when we move too far away from how we produce our food, we loose a sort of food sovereignty. I think you have to balance these sorts of readymade products to the traditional way we as humans eat. It is good for people to have modern convenience of food but it is a problem when people rely too much on it and forget about origins of food.

Remote areas are not much concerned with variety of food and modern convenience. But we really should focus on potential of marketing incredible rare food found here like the morel mushrooms and Himalayan truffles to the higher European market.

You were in North Korea for some time. Tell us a little about that country because it is quite fascinating.

Before coming here I worked in North Korea and I was one of the first White House officials to travel there during the Clinton Administration. As an American, it is not an easy place to work. As individual people, they were nice. But as a country, they are very anti-American. It’s one of the last communist state.

Do you think Nepal could ever be like that if Nepal becomes a communist state?

Nepali people aren’t like that even if you become a communist state. Communism here tends to be more socialist. Democracy is not easy; it is not painless. If you’re waiting in line for petrol, and you’ve got power outages and no water, you do get frustrated but in terms of peace process, these things are slow and people have to be comfortable how they develop and there is progress.

Tell us about your snowboarding. Is it a viable tourism idea?

I have snowboarded in the Annapurna area in the base camp. It is a very specialized area, the only way to do it is you’ve got to be a mountaineer and climb up or you need a helicopter to fly you up. The snowline starts really high here so you begin in an altitude of 4,300 metres. In a helicopter, you need to be around 6,000 meters high. You need to go with people who have a lot of experience. Nepal is not a place that has people with skiing or snowboarding experiences. There are great mountaineers but they know climbing. Also, you don’t have a lot of helicopters in the country that can operate at those altitudes. And pilots don’t know how hill skiing works.

How dangerous is it?

It’s risky. The terrain is one of the most risky terrains in the world. Once, I got caught in the avalanche in the Annapurna in the south. I set it off when I was moving across the slope late in the afternoon. I was shooting a movie with three people for Nike. When you snowboard you push more snow than while skiing and I was third in the line that day. We knew the slope was unstable and when I went, the whole thing fractured. Annapurna is like the most avalanche prone mountain in the Himalayas. I stayed up and I couldn’t really ride it out, but it spit me out.

You have a solid art collection as well, some of which we got a glimpse of at the international art exhibition, Separating Myth from Reality: Status of Women, last month.

I’m a very bad painter. Three things I’d really wanted to be are rock star, world famous chef and a painter artist. But then I’ve got no real talent for any of it so those are just dreams.
I started collecting art even when I was in college. Then I really started buying art when I was in Washington DC and in China. When I was in China, my wife worked at an Asian fusion restaurant. Below the restaurant was one of the biggest art galleries in Beijing. I got to be friends with lot of these pre-Tiananmen artists who did gaudy art very much like pop art. After Tiananmen happened and everyone went underground, there were these post-Tiananmen periods when painters became subtly political and provocative.

In the States, I have some Salvador Dali. I have a Helen Frankenthaler and an Andy Warhol too.

What book are you reading?

I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Fatherhood for Amateurs. My favorite book of all time is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Chabon. I am reading his Fatherhood for Amateurs because I am a dad and a total amateur at it. I am also listening to a book Philip Roth’s The Humbling.

Music that you are into these days…

I’m listening to Sparklehorse and Vampire Weekend. I’m also listening to Black Joe Louis and the Honey Bears and The Silver Sun Pickups; they are an LA based band, very fuzzy and very nice.

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